Big Isle public school enrollment down slightly


Bucking a statewide trend, enrollment at Hawaii Island public schools is down 1.6 percent, according to data released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.

Hawaii Island’s enrollment dropped from 23,556 students last year to 23,180 this year. Birthrates play a significant role in enrollment, and it seems Hawaii Island has not had as many births as 15 years ago, when the district experienced steady growth and the other districts did not, said Tom Saka of DOE’s Information Management Architecture.

Hilo-Laupahoehoe-Waiakea Complex Area had the greatest drop in enrollment, losing 183 students from last year’s 7,856, while enrollment in the Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area dropped just 59 students. The biggest enrollment declines in the complex areas were at Waiakea High, Ka‘u High & Pahala Elementary School, and Waiakea Intermediate, which lost 46 students, 39 students and 33 students, respectively. Greatest enrollment gains were at Pahoa Elementary and Waiakeawaena Elementary, both of which increased by more than 25 students.

East Hawaii Complex Area Superintendent Valerie Takata, as well as the principals of the above schools, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Honokaa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena Complex Area has 10,091 students, 135 less than last year. West Hawaii Complex Area Superintendent Art Souza said a surprising trend was enrollment fell significantly in North Kona, an area with more jobs and affordable housing.

This year, Kealakehe High School lost 71 students, Kealakehe Intermediate was down 45 students and Kealakehe Elementary has 15 fewer students. Meanwhile, enrollment in South Kona, Kohala and Hamakua remained relatively stable. This is a dramatic shift from previous enrollment counts and is something Souza finds curious, but couldn’t explain.

Konawaena High School’s enrollment rose to 707, which is 21 more students than last year. Principal Shawn Suzuki didn’t know what caused the increase, but said he’s flattered and attributed it to the school’s academic performance and programs. He said enrollment has remained between 680 and 700 over the past three years.

Still, Suzuki said the rise was a surprise, especially since enrollment has steadily decreased over the past six years and projections for South Kona are for far fewer students the next three to five years. At one time, Konawaena High served more than 950 students.

Enrollment counts matter because of the weighted student formula used to allocate state funding to schools. The state allocates a specific dollar figure per student as a base amount for each student enrolled, coupled with additional funding for students with special needs. Enrollment trends affect facilities usage, personnel and programs, and have budgetary implications that could be felt as soon as next school year, Souza said.

Annual academic and financial plans are developed by each school based on enrollment. Principals are working on financial plans for next school year, which are due at the end of December, Souza said.

Enrollment counts are taken at various times throughout the year. The recent data is from the August count. Another count will be taken in January, Saka said.

With 286 public and charter schools, enrollment statewide is 183,251 students, an increase of 1.1 percent. The increase can be attributed to the large number of births in 2007, as well as the overall state of the economy, Saka said.

Charter schools in Hawaii continue to enroll more students. There was a 5.3 percent gain in enrollment at the 32 charter schools up to 9,593 students this year. The expansion of facilities, addition of grades or classes, and Laupahoehoe School converting to a public charter school are all contributing factors locally, Saka said.

Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School’s enrollment is 201. That’s just 27 fewer students than last year, when it was a traditional public school.

“Uncertainty over the conversion process led to a number of students leaving the school at the end of last school year,” said Director David Rizor. “However, the enrollment of 201 represents a rebound in enrollment, and we expect it to continue to increase over the next several years. As we develop programs and the school builds a reputation as a quality school, we expect that enrollment will sharply increase.”

Kona Pacific Public Charter School expanded its Kealakekua campus with the construction of two new buildings, which tripled its classroom space. When the school first opened in 2008, it offered kindergarten through fourth grade. Since, it has been adding grades or classes annually, including an eighth-grade class and a second kindergarten class this year, said Director Usha Kotner.

The school served 169 students last year and current enrollment is 197. Kotner said students and their families are drawn to the school’s “holistic, hands-on, place-based” academic program with the mission of inspiring and developing “a lifelong love of learning.” Kotner said the school integrates Hawaiian culture, agricultural studies and strong community involvement. The overall increase in charter school enrollment shows such schools are meeting the public’s need for free, nontraditional public education, she added.